JIM GENTILE – 1961 Most Valuable Oriole
The 1961 Most Valuable Oriole established a club record for runs batted in that stood for 35 years, enjoyed the greatest slugging campaign in franchise history, and led Baltimore to their first 95-victory season.
Jim Gentile was a nationally acclaimed schoolboy pitcher when he inked his first contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1952, but they converted the 6’4″, 205-pounder into a slugging first-baseman full-time in less than a year. The San Francisco native smashed 34 home runs to lead the Western League in 1953, but raised eyebrows with a notorious temper that got him ejected from ten games.
Gentile kicked quite a few water coolers when he was frustrated, but launched more than 200 long balls with his left-handed stroke by the end of 1959. Unfortunately, only one of them came in the big leagues, as the Dodgers had first base capably manned by eight-time All Star Gil Hodges. Hitting only .139 in brief chances branded Gentile a failed prospect, but it wasn’t fair considering he totalled only 39 major league at bats.
He just wanted an opportunity, and figured it would come after 1958 when the Dodgers couldn’t send him back to the minors without first offering him to the other major league clubs. Gentile endured the worst season of his career though, and was shocked to find out no team wanted him.
Finally, after he rebounded to hit 27 taters in the American Association, the Baltimore Orioles acquired him in a conditional sale for two players to be named later. Gentile whaled away with the Marlboro Smokers in Panama that winter, but proceeded to stink up the joint once he got to spring training. Nervous about returning to the minors if he didn’t produce, he butchered plays in the field and struggled to make sufficient contact at the plate. The Orioles had until thirty days into the regular season to decide if it was worth a second $25,000 payment to the Dodgers to keep him around, but the prevailing notion was “why bother?”
“You can’t be as bad as you look,” Baltimore manager Paul Richards told Gentile. With nothing to lose, Richards put him in the lineup on opening day, and Gentile knocked in fourteen runs in the first nine games. A mammoth home run to an area of Washington’s Griffith Stadium that had only been reached previously by a quartet of Hall of Fame sluggers got everybody’s attention.
Richards built up his new first-baseman’s confidence by platooning him with Walt Dropo, and veteran Gene Woodling encouraged Gentile to lay off borderline pitches and eliminate the uppercut from his swing. Gentile responded by making the All-Star team and shattering the club RBI record in just 384 at bats. He tied for second in Rookie-of-the-Year voting behind teammate Ron Hansen as the “Baby Birds” Orioles squad stayed in pennant contention until the middle of September.
Few thought Baltimore’s young ballclub could repeat their success in 1961, but Gentile was determined to prove them wrong. The “sophomore jinx” never entered his mind as he spent the off-season recovering from ankle surgery. Though he was a worrier by nature, having a spot in the lineup secure for the first time in his career allowed him to direct his concentration towards getting better.
Gentile homered three times on the season-opening homestand, then blasted eight more on a 16-game road trip for the record books. On April 30 in Detroit, he just missed joining Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle as the only players to hit a ball completely out of Tiger Stadium when a light tower atop the right field pavilion got in the way. The crowd gasped as Gentile’s moonshot with a man aboard broke up pitcher Paul Foytack’s bid for a one-hit shutout in the eighth. Foytack himself was so shaken up that he allowed two more longballs to the next pair of Baltimore batters. In Los Angeles, Gentile won the series opener by walloping a tie-breaking homer in the ninth, then tacked on two more dingers the next day.
He bruised his knee in Kansas City crashing into a fence in pursuit of a foul, and didn’t hit any home runs. By the time the O’s got to Minnesota, Gentile’s knee was so stiff and sore that he almost didn’t play. Fortunately, he felt well enough to jack a grand slam off Pedro Ramos in the top of the first, and became the first major leaguer to homer with the bases loaded in consecutive innings when he added another the following frame off reliever Paul Giel. The bat ended up in Cooperstown, and Gentile finished with nine RBI after a sacrifice fly later in the contest. “I hate to leave men on base,” he explained.
Gentile was batting .353, with more runs batted in than any player in baseball and a share of the lead for home runs, but he still found himself back on the bench the next day because Baltimore was facing a left-handed pitcher. “The man who never changes his mind” -as Richards liked to refer to himself- did just that soon after though, starting Gentile the next two times the Orioles faced southpaws. Gentile smashed homers against both of them. He missed a few days with a pulled thigh muscle after that but, when he returned, Dropo was released and Gentile had the job all to himself.
People called him “Diamond Jim” because he took care to look his best for the ladies away from the field, but the Orioles realized their gem of a slugger was becoming more polished with experience.
After a so-so June in which he still managed to maintain the major league lead in RBI, Gentile went absolutely nuts in July. It started on the first of the month when he logged the first four-hit game of his career against the Tigers at Memorial Stadium. The next day, he hammered his third grand slam of the season. Five days later, after missing a couple games with a jammed thumb, he matched the American League record with his fourth bases loaded clout of the year in dramatic fashion. Gentile stepped up as a pinch-hitter in a tie game with Kansas City in town, and clobbered a 2-2 pitch 450-feet to help the Orioles go on the victory. He smiled broadly as he crossed the plate, and Chuck Estrada rolled to another victory. Estrada was the Orioles pitcher for all of Gentile’s grand slams.
The first of two All-Star games that summer took place in Candlestick Park, and Gentile fulfilled a dream by performing in a big league uniform in his hometown for the first time. After the break, he completed a monstrous July in which he batted .423 with ten homers and 26 RBI in 21 games.
Arguably, he was even better in August, blasting 15 homers and driving in 30 while batting .347. He matched teammate Gus Triandos’ club record with his 30th home run on August 5. “I never would have believed a man could have such a good year in this parrk, and I don’t think anyone else would have either,” Triandos marveled. “He’s making a joke of the game.”
By the end of August, Gentile had 43 home runs, matching Babe Ruth’s pace the year he hit his record 60. Of course, 1961 proved to be the year that Roger Maris powered 61, and a September slump ruined any chance for Gentile to challenge him. Gentile finished one RBI behind Maris for the league lead, and wound up third in the home run race & MVP voting behind Maris and Mickey Mantle.
The Orioles slugger did have one more magical moment, blasting his fifth grand slam off former Oriole Don Larsen in Chicago on September 22 to help make a winner of -who else- Estrada. The homer tied Ernie Banks’ major league record for bases loaded blasts in a season, and established a new American League record.
Gentile finished the year with 46 homers, 141 RBI and a .302 batting average, plus a club record 96 walks. He got a big raise and bought a home in Timonium but, after his numbers declined for two straight years, the Orioles traded him to Kansas City. Teammate Milt Pappas said in his autobiography that Gentile was “such a flake off the field that (General Manager Lee) MacPhail thought he was disruptive to the chemistry of the team.” Gentile bounced around to three teams in three years before his big league career came to an end at age 32.
Gentile’s home run and RBI marks have been displaced from the top of the Orioles record books over the years, but his .646 slugging percentage, 1.069 OPS and 22 game-winning RBI remain single season franchise records.
Now 73, Gentile resides in Edmond, Oklahoma.
by MALCOLM ALLEN